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Podcast: Coronavirus and Its Impact on Higher Education

Podcast: Coronavirus and Its Impact on Higher Education

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, and Dr. Wally Boston, President, American Public University System

During the coronavirus outbreak, many colleges and universities have transitioned from traditional classroom environments to teaching primarily online. In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with American Public University System President Dr. Wally Boston about the impact of coronavirus on higher education.

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During this podcast, learn about the short- and long-term impact on academic institutions, including technical issues and training challenges. Dr. Mercer and Dr. Boston discuss how important it is for universities and colleges who are new to the online teaching environment to design courses that are highly engaging and interactive to enhance student learning.

In addition, learn about compliance challenges as well as the potential impact on higher education tuition and enrollment rates. Could the changes happening in response to the coronavirus pandemic change the balance of in-person and online course offerings at some schools?

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today at “The Everyday Scholar,” we are talking to Dr. Wally Boston, President of American Public University System. Today we’re going to be talking about coronavirus and its potential impact on higher education. Welcome, Wally, happy to have you here.

Dr. Wally Boston: It’s great to be here, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: This is a really interesting topic because we’re currently, as of March of 2020, all experiencing the coronavirus and its impact on everyday life here in the U.S. And one of the impacts it’s also having is in higher education and education in general. And so that really leads me into the first question: What are the challenges traditional institutions face by moving so many of their courses or all their courses online? Because of coronavirus, most schools have been canceling and moving their instruction online. So what are some of the technological, logistical, administration, teaching, and student challenges that everybody’s facing right now?

Dr. Wally Boston: I think that’s the $64 million question, and there’s several different answers. Let’s start with what most schools look like. And if we parse out the fact that I believe most schools have access to a learning management system or a LMS. And at the same time, most schools that are not teaching online use that LMS to hold the core syllabus or students upload assignments like papers specifically. So they have the technology to conduct a course online for the rest of the semester.

That said, the good news is that of the top 100 institutions in terms of online enrollment, probably 80 percent of them are public institutions, community colleges, large state universities. They’ve spent some time over the years, particularly with budget cuts, finding ways to do more with less, educate more students at less cost, not having to build dormitories and classrooms.

So in some ways, they’re more prepared for this than the traditional residential four-year liberal arts college, where everything in the admissions catalog is prompting you to go to this school where you can live on campus for four years if that’s your choice, and you can sit in classes and listen to someone whose expertise is Chaucer or Plato or Alexander Pope. And that’s a different experience tailored for that and they’re not tailored for online.

So when I think about where the biggest impact is, I think it’s going to be in these small liberal arts colleges or in the liberal arts undergrad division of an elite institution, which is actually pretty large when you look at their graduate population like Penn, Princeton, Harvard, Duke. I think they have the capabilities, but they’re mostly at the graduate level and they’re going to have to work at the undergraduate level.

So let’s look at technology itself. So if we have a LMS and we know that our students take notes on their laptops, as well as use that laptop to access the internet, probably to access the online library resources, and most of the traditional institutions have online library resources. In fact, in all the news over the last dozen years, it’s about what libraries are purging books and going more electronics.

I’m not worried about that as much as I’m worried about the ability of a traditional instructor who teaches either by lecturing or by the Socratic method, but teaches in front of a live audience and is looking for engaging feedback. If it’s just for the rest of this semester, my advice is, and the advice of others who have been in online for years that I’ve seen posted online is, okay, let’s not try to change too much. Let’s look at the syllabus. If it’s not online loaded, let’s load it up online, and then let’s try to stick to that same schedule.

So if your class was at 9:00 AM Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or 11:00 AM Tuesday, Thursday for an hour and a half, let’s try to stick with that schedule because the students are used to that schedule, you’re used to that schedule. And then let’s go with software that people can participate on a video conference like Zoom, for example.

One of the nice features for Zoom is you can have almost an unlimited number of users. So if you have a large class with 75 or 100 people, if you have the right version of Zoom, can dial in, login through the internet. And you can speak and they can see you in a video while you’re speaking, and whether you’re speaking in a lecture format or if you’re speaking, asking about the assignment and asking Socratic questions, you can do that as well.

I think that that’s not bad for a start and it’s certainly not bad for if there’s six more weeks that you have to get through. At the same time, that’s not going to be good if this thing stretches into the summer and you have summer session, or heaven forbid, it stretches into the fall. But I can get into that in a second.

But certainly the technology is there, that there’s software capabilities there, I’ve heard and read online that nobody can get their Zoom reps because Zoom reps are very busy helping these schools get access to this. But if it goes longer, then you’re really going to need some assistance from instructional design people. Those of us who have been going online for a long time, it’s really important to make the class engaging.

The other issue, though, that does impact the short term, is if the course has a lab and you’ve just now lost your physical lab equipment, you may have to change any lab assignments for the rest of this term. And then, if that course is going to be offered over the summer or the fall and you know you don’t have access to the lab equipment, you’re going to have to redesign the course.

The good news is that there are many vendors of labs, simulations or even lab kits that can be used in online courses. APUS, for example, we have a STEM department and they have many courses that have labs. We offered a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, and I think the last time I checked with the faculty there, there are about nine different courses that have labs and we have several devices that are sent out to the students. And they use those devices to build circuits, for example, in electrical engineering.

But if that happens to be some of the courses that your school has and you aren’t already equipped for that lab, I think you’re going to have to improvise and find another way to do the assignment. And perhaps there are online simulations in the cloud that don’t require the equipment. Science isn’t my area of expertise, I just know enough about this to be dangerous.

But I think that there’s just a notable difference. We’re going to scrape by for the rest of this semester, but if you need to offer the full class, you’re going to need some assistance and some expertise in how to design it to make it much more engaging and interactive with the student in mind.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree when you said if this only lasts this semester, most schools will get through it. They’ll have Zoom. Zoom is a wonderful product. Traditional faculty who lecture will be able to lecture. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 10:00 AM, students will show up.

But there’s so many complexities that go into really creating engaging and also compliant classes that way. I just think of like a copyright. You know, there’s certain things you cannot put up online because you have to get copyright approval. Instructional designers are so beneficial.

And for the smaller schools, like you said, if this does go a little longer, it is a real logistical challenge. Now, as far as other issues, who will struggle more, the students or the teachers, with stuff going online?

Dr. Wally Boston: Great question, Bjorn. I think the teachers are going to struggle more. I think the students, they were born into a digital world. They’re very comfortable with using technology. But even younger instructors who may be technically digital natives, but if they’ve only taught through a lecture method and that was the way they were taught and that’s the way they currently teach, I think they’re going to struggle on a number of issues.

One issue, you’ve mentioned compliance, and I’ll just talk about it. So the Department of Education for this term has waived a number of compliance issues. One of which is the telecommunications rule, which requires that the course be interactive. I may have mentioned, or not, that one of the ways the department actually signs off on a course being interactive is if you have discussion board assignments.

And those discussion board assignments should be structured in a way so that a topic is posted and you ask the students to think about it and write a certain amount about it. And then in several cases, actually comment on other students’ thoughts about that particular topic.

To do a discussion posting that’s meaningful, you really want to put a good topic out there and have the students interested, rather than just saying, “Oh gosh, I have to write 200 words on this and it’s like a book report. That’s boring.” And I’m also not sure how much they’re learning when you do it, but if you do it you’ll help them with critical thinking. I think that’s pretty important.

But another compliance thing that they’ve also waived is having the course accessible to the handicapped. So people who cannot hear need to have captioning, and people who are blind need to have the ability that there’s a reader that takes the course from text and verbalizes it. So those are not small things to do on a regular basis, and for the spring term, we may actually have situations where some of the schools have handicapped people who either can’t hear or can’t see, and they’ll probably have to bring in outside experts to help them make the course facilitate for the students.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, that’s an interesting waiver, because I know in my daily job I ensure that the courses here at APUS are WCAG and 508 compliant. And it’s not easy but it’s extremely important to make sure that everything is accessible to everyone. Now, we can go on honestly for hours about this, but I’ll transition you to the next question.

So for some, the move to online is viewed as a short-term fix, hopefully just for the rest of the spring semester. Could this fix become permanent and change the balance of in-person and online offerings at some schools?

Dr. Wally Boston: I think the answer is yes, it could. I have twin daughters who are sophomores in college at two different schools, and each semester, each one of them is enrolled at least in one online class versus going to class in person.

I think one of my daughters, they’re both athletes, last spring during her big season, her advisor recommended that she enrolled in three of her four courses as online because she was on the road so much traveling with the team. And so, I think that you will see some schools and some instructors make arguments that this is effective.

I think done poorly though, and here’s one of the risks from those of us who’ve been in this for a while, if a course is done poorly, the students themselves may have a bad experience and not be in favor of continuing to do online. I think that there’s a whole research area for academics on online student persistence.

It’s sort of a subtopic. Student persistence and graduation is the major area, but specifically looking at online. And the biggest single factor is engaging the student. Because on a technical basis, if you’re paying a lot of money to go to school, you really don’t want someone to tell you to read the book and send in a paper via email and that seems to be all that you got out of the class. You’re looking for much more than that, and to get much more than that, somebody is going to have to design the class to be better.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Even just of the top of my head, I can think of community colleges, smaller four-year institutions that might want to move general education courses online, which strategically, logistically is not a bad idea. But like you said, if a student has a bad experience, then they might question going to that school where they are.

And so it’ll be interesting to see how this really does affect the offerings at more elite institutions. I’m sure most of the courses will still be in-person. That’s why you go to those lead schools. But in more, say, commuter schools, I could see the balance maybe going up to 50/50. Who knows? And that’s one of the challenges that will definitely… Or just one of the outcomes that will occur here.

Because everybody is moving online, how might tuition be impacted, especially at expensive private institutions?

Dr. Wally Boston: Great question. Tuition is one of the more puzzling areas for many years. And I call this the U.S. News and World Report survey phenomena. So in the early ’80s when U.S. News and World Report started doing college rankings, the wealthy schools, the elite schools, wanted to be top 10 schools and so they started doing things that were important in the ratings. Those things cost money, and because they could, they charged for it.

And one of the things, by the way, that was important in the ratings was the percentage of students that you accepted. So applications zoomed. I may have some of the numbers wrong here, but let’s say that Harvard’s freshmen class is 1,500 people. Well, probably 30, 40 years ago, they might have 5,000 applications for 1,500 slots. Now because they market, and they market to everyone, encouraging people to apply, they may have 50,000 applications for 1,500 slots.

So I look at the ratings war stimulating price increases, tuition price increases. And when you have high demand and you keep your product at a fixed capacity, you can pretty much charge whatever you want to. Well, a lot of colleges said, gee, I may not be an Ivy League school, but I don’t have to be priced a lot less than that.

And so they increased their tuition as well, even though they might not have had the same elite nature, similar scarcity of product. And so we’ve had 30-some years of escalating prices, with the last 10 particularly, being much more competitive. And the practice with the non-elite private schools has been using tuition discounting or merit scholarships to attract students.

So this is a long-about way to answer your question, but I think the entire enrollment management strategy and tuition pricing is such an art form and a selected science, that thinking that you could increase your enrollment by offering your online courses, I wouldn’t say cheaper, but for lower tuition, that’s going to require a lot of thinking.

Because there’s a delicate model out there and you might actually cannibalize some of your full-paying students or cannibalize some of your face-to-face students if you offered online programs at a lower cost that was the same content and maybe even the same faculty member. So it’s easier I think, when in our case we’re an online school only, and I’ve been doing this since 1993, and we have a mission of affordability for our students, and so are quite proud as how affordable our courses are.

I think it’s different when you have a list price tuition and housing cost of $50,000, $60,000, $70,000. And maybe you do discount that 50 percent in the form of a merit scholarship.

But I think about our tuition, and for example, our undergraduate tuition, if you’re active-duty military for a full year is $7,500, and we’re providing textbooks through a book grant. That $7,500 is still a lot less than 50 percent off on $50,000. So capabilities are there. Online technology can allow you to lower the cost of education, but so far the market hasn’t necessarily flocked to it, although I think I’ve seen some weakening in the market the last two or three years.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. Ever since I’ve worked at APUS, I’ve been very proud of the fact that our tuition is less than the major in-state schools here in Arizona. I live in Arizona. Arizona State, University of Arizona, and AU, and the fact that we can offer quality excellent online education for the less than what you could do here and around the country is a great differentiator. Now, as far as the tuition being impacted and all these courses going online, might this hasten the closure of the smaller, more specialized colleges around the country that have been struggling, especially over the last 10 years?

Dr. Wally Boston: I don’t know that online in particular will hasten the closing. I think this coronavirus itself could hasten the closing when you think about this extends beyond this spring semester. There may be students who choose not to enroll in summer sessions at all or aren’t able to enroll in summer sessions at all unless they’re online. I’ve heard rumors that this thing could extend into the fall.

So what do we do? Do we delay till October, the fall semester start? Do we start in August like most schools do at a traditional? Let’s start online and hope that we can bring people, move them into the dorms and the classrooms. Not knowing the answers, but certainly if schools started in the fall online, they wouldn’t have the income from their dorms, they wouldn’t have the income from running their dining facilities, and it would be a mess. And they probably wouldn’t have enrollment, because why would students sign leases for apartments if they’re not sure if the school is going to be up and running?

I think the schools that don’t have the capital to deal with an extended absence of their students or extend the pay of some of their critical staff and have to lay them off, I think that will hasten the demise of those schools. So the coronavirus itself, as far as online, I think online over a longer period, perhaps, particularly if some institutions continue to throw out 5 percent annual tuition increases, other than for the very wealthy and the very elite schools that can fund scholarships to people whose incomes aren’t at the level to afford it, the rest are in a very weak position financially.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. That makes me think of the many different colleges, smaller colleges, excellent colleges whose endowments might be a few million or lower tens of millions. And by not having income from operations, from housing and tuition, that could substantially hurt their financial position.

And like you said, the wealthier schools can absorb a lot, but the smaller schools, it’ll be interesting to see what happens, especially the ones that already have been struggling. And that leads us to the last question, is how is American Public University System uniquely positioned during the coronavirus epidemic to service our students and our communities?

Dr. Wally Boston: Great question. So when the concept of social distancing and “flatten the curve” came out, we were monitoring the situation and said, yes, we need to do that. So the first thing we did was we reduced attendance at conferences and reduced travel. But that reduction didn’t last very long because we realized what we needed to do was cancel conference attendance if the conference hadn’t been canceled, which many conferences were starting to cancel themselves, and just cancel work-related travel, and even ask for our employees to limit their personal travel.

The good news is our faculty and staff who are attending conferences shut that down pretty fast. Our students are all remote, working theoretically from their home. Our faculty are remote, working from their home, or perhaps if they’re part-time faculty and employed full-time somewhere else, they may be working from their office.

But nonetheless, they’re not aggregating together. That’s good. That’s flattening the curve. That’s social distancing.

At the same time, we have buildings. We’re an accredited institution and accredited institutions have to have a physical location to get accredited, even though this is the internet era. So we have about 800 staff who are located either in Charlestown, West Virginia, or Manassas, Virginia.

Fortunately, about 10 years ago, we had a really bad snowstorm in our area, and even though our faculty and students were able to connect through the internet, we have academic advisors and admissions people and people who work in the finance office preparing financial aid awards, those types of things, who couldn’t get into the office. So we made a decision to reconfigure our technology to issue all the staff who worked at those two locations, laptops, to configure the laptops so that when the laptop was plugged into the internet and went to a particular link in our system, the system recognized the laptop. And with a simple headphone that plugged into the laptop, the telephone extension in the buildings that we own and lease could automatically identify where the computer was and route the call to the laptop.

So we realized as we were watching what other companies were doing, that to help flatten that curve for our community, we were going to have to do the social distancing and ask people to work remotely who were aggregating in primarily four buildings between Manassas and Charles Town. And so on Monday, we went live with that.

And I’m pleased to say that the technology’s held, it’s functioned well, and I haven’t received any complaints nor have I received any alerts that some of this is not working. That said, one of our concerns has been that if all around the country everybody’s working from home, that perhaps some of the local internet providers will get swamped and the signals will get degraded. We haven’t seen that yet; we haven’t heard that yet. We have had a couple of employees who had weak service I think to begin with, and so supplied them with portable hotspots that seem to be working now. And I think we’ve not missed a beat with our students.

And as far as our communities go, the fact that we have or had a lot of people, 850 people who, like I said, were assigned to four different buildings in two different locations, and they’re not bringing germs that you can’t see in and sharing them in theoretically in a close environment, having one person’s infected then perhaps more people are infected. So we’re doing our part, keeping people distant. I am aware of one of our faculty members who’s remote, believe that they’ve been infected. But so far I’ve not heard of any staff infections.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. And of course we’re always hoping if anybody does get it that they recover quickly.

Dr. Wally Boston: Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And hopefully the symptoms and the experience isn’t too bad. And I was going to say, my own experience with working from home as a director here has been absolutely wonderful. I’ve been able to help the community with the kids staying home. We’ve been able to help out other parents in the neighborhood as we figure out what to do.

And social distancing is important because I think this will change not only higher education institutions, but a lot of institutions’ companies, that they will be better prepared for mobility. So workers will have a laptop that can connect with their company’s VPN or whatnot. So productivity isn’t lost essentially. And that’s the one of the great things about APUS is that we’re still teaching and there’s no connectivity loss at all, which is absolutely wonderful.

And for a higher education institution, I could definitely see that they’ll try to do that over the next year or two years, so just in case another pandemic occurs, of course hopefully it doesn’t, but knowing history it will. So definitely, thank you. And so at this point, Dr. Boston, is there any final words for anybody who’s listening?

Dr. Wally Boston: Obviously, frequently wash your hands and don’t touch your face and stay six feet away, and minimize your attendance in crowds. But I think we’ve all probably seen those pieces of advice out on television or through the internet, and we certainly communicated with our employees as well as our students on doing that as well.

So I’m hopeful that the activities, not just at APUS, but at other institutions, have worked sufficiently so that we don’t have the large numbers that countries like Italy have had, and that we’re able to stave off overcrowded hospitals. But we’ll see. This is going to be a few more weeks, in my opinion.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, for sure. Well, thank you. So today here at The Everyday Scholar, we had Dr. Wally Boston, President of American Public University System, where we were talking about coronavirus and its potential impact on higher education. So thank you so much, sir.

Dr. Wally Boston: Thank you very much, Bjorn.

About the Speakers

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020.

Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni.

In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education.

Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group.

Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus.

Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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